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Sermon: When You Pray – The Lord’s Prayer

Here’s the first message in a seven-part series on The Lord’s Prayer.  We’re using The Lord’s Prayer to form us spiritually during Lent this year.  Join us in these days of preparation by praying The Lord’s Prayer each day.

When You Pray:  The Lord’s Prayer

Matthew 6:5-15

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “This, then, is how you should pray:


“‘Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

10 your kingdom come,

your will be done

on earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today our daily bread.

12 Forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

The Greatest Prayer

We are quickly entering that season of the Christian Year called Lent, in which we prepare ourselves for the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Although Lent doesn’t begin this year until Ash Wednesday on March 9, we’re going to start our preparation a little earlier.  And this year we’re going to use The Lord’s Prayer as our guide for our own spiritual formation leading up to Easter.

As we gather for the next six Sundays, we will look at each key phrase in The Lord’s Prayer, and we’ll reflect on what that phrase meant for those who heard Jesus personally, and then on what it means for us 20 centuries later.

The Lord’s Prayer is unique in all the prayers of the Bible, and unique in all of the instructions of Jesus to his disciples.  John Dominic Crossan, in his book The Greatest Prayer, describes The Lord’s Prayer this way:

“The Lord’s Prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer.  It is also Christianity’s strangest prayer.  It is prayed by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ.  It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions church.  It is prayed on all Sundays, but it never mentions Sunday.  It is called the “Lord’s Prayer,” but it never mentions “Lord.”

“It is prayed by fundamentalist Christians, but it never mentions the inspired inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles, the atoning death, or bodily resurrection of Christ.  It is prayed by evangelical Christians, but it never mentions the evangelium, or gospel. It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians, but it never mentions ecstasy or the Holy Spirit.”

“It is prayed by Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic Christians, but it never mentions congregation, priest, bishop or pope.  It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over this or that doctrine, but it never mentions a single one of those doctrines.  It is prayed by Christians who focus on Christ’s substitutionary sacrificial atonement for human sin, but it never mentions Christ, substitution, sacrifice, atonement, or sin.”

“It is prayed by Christians who focus on the next life in heaven or in hell, but it never mentions the next life, heaven, or hell.  It is prayed by Christians who emphasize what it never mentions and also by Christians who ignore what it does [mention].” – Prologue, page 1, The Greatest Prayer, John Dominic Crossan

Interestingly, there are very few books available about The Lord’s Prayer itself.  While commentaries on Matthew and Luke deal with The Lord’s Prayer, very few books take the prayer Jesus taught his disciples for their entire subject matter.

How could a prayer that is the only prayer Jesus taught us, receive such little attention?  That’s why for the next six weeks, we’re going to focus our attention on the greatest prayer in preparation for our celebration of the greatest Sunday, Easter.

The Disciples’ Prayer

This prayer that we call The Lord’s Prayer is also called the “Our Father” by our Roman Catholic friends because of the way in which the prayer begins.  It has also been called The Model Prayer by some.  But in reality, none of those titles suit this prayer.  In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray, and so if we need a title for this prayer, we should call it The Disciples’ Prayer.

After all, it was a prayer Jesus taught to his disciples.  It focuses the disciples’ thoughts on God, the One to whom all prayer must be offered, and on life now.  Later in church history, The Lord’s Prayer became the prayer converts said after their baptism.  It was regarded as “the abridgement of the entire Gospel” according to Tertullian of Carthage.

In fact, the Prayer contains two distinct emphases for disciples of Jesus.

Much like the Ten Commandments which can be divided between those which deal with our relationship with God — no other gods, no idols, not misusing God’s name, keeping the Sabbath day; and those which deal with our relationship with others — honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying about others, not coveting others’ possessions — the Prayer that Jesus taught his disciples also deals with our relationship with God, and life with others.

This Prayer is found in Matthew’s Gospel in the midddle of the section on The Sermon on the Mount, and many biblical scholars believe that Jesus was giving the “law” for the Kingdom of God, much like Moses gave the Law for the nation of Israel.

In the past we have looked at the phrase that Jesus uses repeatedly in Matthew’s Gospel — “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you….”  We have thought about how Jesus was reimagining the Law given by Moses, and restoring it to its original intent.  This law, which had become a rigid set of “do’s and don’ts” was meant by God to be a “law of the heart” — a way to live that separated God’s people from all others.

The Prayer Jesus taught to his disciples has that same purpose.  In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray because John has taught his disciples to pray.   (Luke 11:1)  Jesus responds by saying, “When you pray….”

Matthew also captures that same instruction from Jesus.  As a matter of fact, Jesus uses that phrase three times — “When you pray…”  Let’s take a look at what Jesus says his disciples should do when they pray.

The Problem with Prayer

First, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus expected his disciples would pray.  In Jewish life, prayers were offered at least twice a day, and often three times a day.  The Book of Acts records Peter and John going to the Temple “at the time of prayer — at three in the afternoon.” (Acts 3:1).

Devout Jewish men particularly were expected to pray at 9 am, at noon, and at 3 pm, also.  You might recall the Old Testament story of Daniel who defied the king’s law and continued to pray three times a day in “his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem.” (Daniel 6:10)  Prayer was a natural, regular, and necessary part of Jewish life.

But the problem with any spiritual practice is that what starts out with great feeling and intensity, with deep meaning and good intentions, can often become a perfunctory ritual.  That was what had happened with the practice of the Jews in the first century.

Actually, meaningless ritual is an age-old problem.  On more than one occasion God reminds his people that he wants their hearts, not their empty sacrifices.  After asking the question “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah answers with this — “And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6:8)  God, in other words, wants their hearts, not their meaningless ritual.

Before Jesus tells the disciples how to pray, he cautions them on how not to pray.  This is actually another way of Jesus saying, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you….” —  only now, however, Jesus is using a different phrase to correct their practice.

The First Problem with Prayer:  Praying for Our Own Reward

Jesus has to teach the disciples to pray because prayer has fallen into a meaningless ritual that has lost both its purpose and its power.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…”  Of course, nobody wants to be like the hypocrites.  But who were they?  The hypocrites were probably those who would have been considered “righteous men” in Jesus day.  They were men who prayed three times a day, and who did so wherever they were.

But, apparently to show off their own piety, many of these so-called righteous men would position themselves at street corners, or in the most visible parts of the Temple when the time for prayer came.

A quick note here:  Jewish men of the first century prayed while standing, with their arms outstretched, palms up, and their faces either bowed, or lifted to heaven.  We know the posture because Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who go up to the Temple to pray.  They are both standing when they pray, but the tax collector — an outcast and sinner — would not even lift up his head to heaven, according to Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus addresses the first problem of prayer, and that is praying for our own reward.  Now Jesus isn’t condemning the corporate prayer of God’s people gathered together.  Rather, Jesus said those that stand alone praying loudly on the street corners, or in prominent places in the synagogue or Temple, have their reward.  Everybody saw them praying, but their audience wasn’t God, it was those within viewing distance from them.

In some ways we have gotten past that today.  We understand that the purpose of prayer is not to raise our reputation, but to present ourselves to God.

But, the flipside of praying alone to be seen and heard  Jesus said was to go into our room, shut the door, and pray.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Private prayer is part of the “when you pray” assumption that Jesus makes.  And, in some ways we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, for in our recognition that we shouldn’t pray conspicuously, we have often neglected to pray privately.  It isn’t enough not to pray to be seen, private personal prayer is the disciple’s appropriate entry  alone into the presence of God.

The Second Problem with Prayer:  Meaningless Talk

The second problem with prayer, especially when you’re expected to pray a lot, is that it can quickly become meaningless.  In the first century, Jews were expected to pray several prayers.  The first was the Shema, “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”  That’s only part of it, however.  This prayer, when prayed in full, was taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41.  It was the bedrock of Jewish prayer life.

In addition to praying the full Shema at each of the three prayer times each day, there were 18 other prayers, called the Shemoneh ‘esreh, which were also to be recited three times a day.

You can imagine what happened.  I am sure that some prayed those prayers faithfully and with great meaning each time they were prayed.  But I’m also sure that some, possibly many, raced through them, slurring the words and phrases into an incomprehensible cacophony of babbling nonsense.

One of those prayers, the fifth prayer, says: “Bring us back to thy law, O our Father, bring us back, O King, to thy service; bring us back to thee by true repentance.  Praised be thou, O Lord, who dost accept our repentance.” (The Lord’s Prayer, William Barclay, p. 6).

Interestingly, our Baptist forefathers left off praying The Lord’s Prayer in the early years of the Radical Reformation to avoid “endless repitition” and meaningless babble.  They probably left it off also because both Catholics and Lutherans continued to say The Lord’s Prayer, and the Anabaptists drew sharp distinctions between themselves and others.

Our meaningless talk to God is less often the prescribed prayer written by someone else than it is our own stock phrases and cliches.  Think about that the next time you pray.

Our Practice During Lent

Having said all of that, I want to invite you to pray The Lord’s Prayer with me everyday during these days of preparation leading up to Easter.  Of course, we could have a contest, complete with signup sheets and commitment cards, and recognize those who pray The Lord’s Prayer everyday.  But then, that would be a lot like praying to enhance our own reputations, wouldn’t it?

No, I think we’ll just covenant together to pray The Lord’s Prayer during these next 50 or so days, since we’re a little ahead of the beginning of Lent.

Could our praying The Prayer turn into meaningless babble?  Of course, it could.  And on some days it may.  But I hope you will join me in praying The Lord’s Prayer at least once each day.

As you pray, listen to the words.  Let them soak into your heart.  You may want to think about one of the six major phrases on each day of the week except Sunday — six days, six phrases — as a way to keep your prayer fresh.

Or you may want to end your regular prayer time by saying The Lord’s Prayer.  Or instead of grace at each meal, say The Lord’s Prayer together when all the family has gathered.  It’s appropriate at mealtime, too, because one of the petitions is for our “daily bread.”

However you choose to reflect on The Lord’s Prayer during these eight weeks, I believe that God will bring new insights to your mind, and new appreciation to your heart.

Join with me now as we pray this prayer together.  We are going to pray The Prayer as we always pray it on our communion Sundays.  You’ll notice that the doxology — those words about God’s power and glory — were not in our text this morning.  Many scholars believe they were added as The Lord’s Prayer was adopted into the liturgy of worship.  The doxology brings the prayer to a fitting conclusion.  Even though those words are not in the scriptural text, they have been part of the tradition of the worshipping community for centuries, and they are familiar to us.  So, we’ll pray Matthew’s prayer, allowing ourselves to add this doxology as all the saints that have gone before us have done.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever. Amen.